Sunday, July 22, 2012

You Can't Teach A Baby To Read

It's not unheard of for preschoolers to teach themselves how to read. In fact, our little school probably sends 2-3 kids off to kindergarten each year who are full-on reading. I wrote before about a boy who taught himself to both read and write so that he would not be breaking the letter of one of our school rules. A couple years ago one of our 2-year-olds began sounding out words he saw around the classroom. Another child entered kindergarten last year having tested out at an 8th grade reading level, a year above the national average for adults. That said, we have never attempted to teach a preschooler to read.

So, it's true that preschoolers can read, the common element in every case being that they've done it on their own, all part of satisfying their curiosity about the world the way other kids might excel at athletics or social skills or working puzzles. And every time we have an early reader at Woodland Park her parents insist they've done nothing special: "She was just born that way."

Some preschoolers learn to read, but the vast majority do not. And no one has ever taught a preschooler to read who wasn't already teaching himself.

That, of course, doesn't stop charlatans from making false claims, playing on the insecurities of new parents, and particularly on those with disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, to convince them to purchase expensive video-based programs that purport to teach babies to read. Recently, one of the biggest pushers of this nonsense, a company called Your Baby Can, producers of the Your Baby Can Read! video series, shut its doors due to the costs of fighting a Federal Trade Commission investigation initiated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for falsely claiming their product taught babies to read. The nail in the coffin was this Today Show piece in which every child development expert they asked agreed: No, these babies are not reading. They are memorizing. 

According to the CCFC:

This is an important victory for families. Research links infant screen time to sleep disturbances, attention problems, and delayed language acquisition, as well as problems in later childhood such as poor school performance and childhood obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics, and other public health organizations, recommend no screen time for infants and toddlers. But if parents followed Your Baby Can Read!’s viewing instructions, their baby would have watched more than 200 hours by the age of nine months.  

To this I will add that there is absolutely no credible evidence that learning to read early has any bearing on a child's future academic life, which is also true for early walking, early talking, or early anything. Early is not better when it comes to education: it's just "early." We can take joy in it as parents, of course, as the Woodland Park community does, but it's no cause to start filling out the Harvard admissions forms. 

(If you like CCFC’s campaign to stop the deceptive marketing of baby media as educational, please consider a contribution to their Action Fund. Your gift will support efforts to keep companies honest and babyhood screen-free.)

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Kylie Hodges said...

I love this post. My little boy is 3 and "reads" about 10 books. It's just memory, we know this because if you prompt him, he can "read" without the book there.

I also love your comments about "early" being just "early". My son was 13 weeks premature and I was very anxious about him being a late walker, but its meaningless, children get to where they need to be in their own time at their own pace.

Kerry said...

I completely agree that there is absolutely no evidence that early readers, are better readers; likewise, there's no lasting advantage.

I was a Montessori teacher for many years, and one of my reasons for leaving (and becoming a co-op teacher!) was realizing that although you CAN teach a three-or four-year-old to read, it's at the expense of much more important things that the child should be doing.

I homeschooled my daughter, and a significant number of her friends were very late readers--after age 9. However, they have all gone on to graduate from college and become competent and well-educated adults. There's no advantage to early reading, and no drawback to late reading if you aren't in school and being humiliated and convinced that you are defective.

Megan said...

Kerry, I'd just like to clarify for any other readers that good Montessori education does not force children to read. Rather, they have a sensitive period for language during which time they can spontaneously develop the skills of writing, then reading, much like Teacher Tom described. In (good) Montessori schools, children are free to choose their own work and therefore everything they do is based on interest, not coercion. There are many other activities available in the room, all of which involve free movement and choice.
Of course, not every "Montessori" school is true Montessori, because the name is not trademarked and anyone can use it. I would caution anyone who is judging the merits of Montessori education to please look at, which is the website of Association Montessori International (USA "chapter"), the organization that Dr Montessori helped to found.
I am an AMI-trained teacher for birth to six, and I completely agree with everything Teacher Tom said, with one caveat. Children under six learn very easily (like a sponge) when things are presented concretely, and therefore we should always *offer* information about letters, sounds, numbers, etc, even if we don't think the child will be interested. If he isn't, then of course let it go and move on to things that *do* interest him, but don't forego giving the opportunity just because he is young. What we learn before the age of six is never forgotten, and we should therefore never limit a child's opportunities to learn.

Aki said...

I barely bought this series since I read some books about child care. I'm not sure what is the best way, so I tend to look for better ideas reading books or asking experts.

After all, I feel that there is no answer fot this.

Thank you for your post.

Trisha said...

I love this post and I totally agree with it! Thank you. Put the babies and young children on your laps and read to them. Play with them. Let them play by themselves--Play is work. There are so many more important things they need to experience and learn that will lead to reading and being well balanced and educated AND HAPPY in general. That will lead to enjoying learning so they will continue to want to learn. Thanks again:)

kpf said...

I've been a teacher (Montessori) for 30 years and if there's one thing I know, you will not teach a child to read before he's ready. AND, an early reader is often a process reader but not necessarily literate. Thanks for writing about this.

IPam said...

EXCELLENT. I'm all for reading (as is the rest of the staff which includes a librarian and elementary school teacher) but reading needs to come when kids are ready for this activity. Our wonderful brains are hard wired to develop in certain ways, and fooling with that individual internal program is pure hubris and folly.

Morgan said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

If you have had a child that has dyslexia you do look at reading a little look at anything that might encourage the child to read! It becomes a priority and a very heart breaking situation so it is easy to get mislead into thinking "maybe this will help" and frankly you don't care what the cost is financially, you will try anything.

Nikoli said...

A lil' bit of Devil's advocate here. To me, beginning to read IS simply memorizing. If my child sees a word that he simply 'memorized" and knows what it reads, AND what it refers to, then that's comprehension. Many, many words are learned strictly by memorizing. "Reading" comes from stringing them together with all of the lil' "non-object" words, such as, the, in, with, of, such as, etc. and forming sentences, following all the rules of writing and conversation.

I think the problems "Your Baby Can" ran into stemmed directly from the exorbitant cost of the program. I almost bought into it several times. But the more research I did, the more I found that all I needed to do as a parent was READ and TALK to my child. And we made our own flash cards. A lot fewer parents would be upset with them if they had only spent $20-$30 on the system. But hundreds? Yea, that kept me from buying in the first place. But all that money lead to way too many disappointments and then investigations.

We often ask our son to "help us read a book" now. (Sometimes, he recognizes when he is being "taught" and says, "No, no. You just read it Daddy." Because he simply wants to hear a story, and not be "learning" all the time.)

TheBoy is 4 now. And I can tell you I absolutely LOVE seeing his light bulb glow when he sounds out a word, no matter how simple, and realizes THAT is the word, often a word he says all the time. But now he can READ it.

I will say we definitely drilled the ABCs and 123s quite heavily with him. But that's easy to do, and fairly easy for most kids to memorize. When he started seeing letters in every day things like tree limbs on the ground, and making letters with his food, that's when I realized, uh oh, what now! He's got that, how do I teach the next thing, which is reading? And I'll be darned if that YBCR commercial didn't come on every single time I was lamenting about the teaching part of my parenting skills (and lack thereof). Pushing all the right buttons making me feel inadequate for not willing to drop $200 RIGHT NOW for this system. So glad my wallet simply said, "Tough shit Dad, better find a different way, because I can't help ya there."

There's just too much information out there, readily available, and from teachers and parents alike, who are EAGER to share to warrant spending that kind of money on something you can do on your own. And have soo much more fun/quality time with your children.

Again, thank you to Teacher Tom for sharing and teaching us all how to help our kids learn.

Stephanie84 said...

Thank you thank you thank you! I've shared your post on my facebook page. I have been a family child care provider for over 15 years and I so appreciate the words of wisdom and hope all will read it and learn. I am extremely tired of the parents who subject their children to flash cards and constant computer programs. It's just a sad waste.

Teacher Tom said...

@Nikoli . . . Good points, although I must point out that YBCR is being investigated for outright lying in their advertising, which is still against the law believe it or not. The price and the fact that their claims flew in the face of everything we know to be true about reading and early childhood development, and the fact that it was a program, if used as directed, that would have put a baby in front of a TV screen for over 200 hours before she was 9 months old, are just things that are "wrong," while not technically illegal. I'm happy to see them go.

Nikoli said...

Agreed. What I'm saying is, I wonder if the investigations would have ever even begun, had the system been a nominal cost. And what if they had just said, yea, this is memorizing for a baby, but memorizing and recognition is what they do, and is the stepping stone to learning.

It seems to me, they had a system that "works" for many children, but shot themselves in the foot. Absolutely, that is an insane amount of 'screen time' for a baby. Babies need "real" input... touch it, feel it, input. Imagine all 900 of those hours, with a parent, sibling, caregiver, doing the exact same thing that the videos show... THAT is worth so much more than $200.

Hmm... perhaps I'll develop a similar system, with zero screen time... 'cept maybe for parents, to show them what to do... hmmm... DIBS! :)

Christian said...

Great post. Thanks. I remember reading Jim Trelease's "The Read-Aloud Handbook" where he cites that in some of the best scoring countries they don't formally teach reading until the second grade. And, he cites some experts stating that kids reading early sometimes have a tough time later on - that if they're pushed to read too early, the burn out later. Thanks again for this post.

Monica said...

I totally agree with this post and love the ideas. It is important that we, parents constantly read to our children and engage conversation with them. Make reading a special time. This is also a great way to spend quality time with your kids.

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